Politics / November 9, 2023

Republicans Beat the War Drums at an “Unhinged” Debate

Last night, the GOP presidential candidates—with one notable exception—competed to demonstrate greater bloodlust.

Chris Lehmann
Smaller Group Of Candidates Attends Third GOP Presidential Debate

Former UN smbassador Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at the NBC News Republican Presidential Primary Debate on November 8, 2023, in Miami, Fla.

(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

With a debate inopportunely scheduled for the night after a sound shellacking at the polls, the GOP presidential field (minus a certain former GOP president) reverted to the reflexes that most reliably stoke the American right-wing id: the drive to ban, bomb, and punish. With panelists Lester Holt, Kristen Welker, and Hugh Hewitt focusing chiefly on the parlous state of world affairs, the five remaining Republican presidential hopefuls qualifying for network airtime in the Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Auditorium evoked the talismanic power of what historian Richard Slotkin dubbed “regeneration through violence.” The evening was awash in the posture of hair-trigger bellicosity that has enlivened past warmongers on the right from Barry Goldwater to Richard Nixon to Geroge W. Bush: Face down the burgeoning threats of a hostile world order by pledging to smartly level foreign rivals and ideological foes with maximum shows of force. Then, as time and resources permit—and without skipping a beat—devote the balance of your agenda to reinscribing a Judeo-Christian ethic as the basis of US governance.

It was a uniquely demented response to the growing political crisis at the heart of a MAGAfied GOP reeling from its seventh major election setback—arguably the largest off-year defeat for the modern Republican Party. But it also made a certain sort of demented sense after American voters roundly repudiated the party’s compulsory childbirth agenda, along with its programs for public-school indoctrination, election denial, and marijuana interdiction. To paraphrase the old attorneys’ maxim, when the facts and the law aren’t on your side, pound the table—and when that doesn’t work, reach for the drones and the special force deployments.

The evening’s tone was set early on, as the candidates who met the RNC’s requirements for continuing to debate—Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and click-addled entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy—tried to one-up each other with jingoist rhetoric in support of Israel’s war in Gaza. DeSantis said that as president he’d “tell Bibi”—keen to advertise his shared bloodlust with a reminder of first-name bonhomie—to “finish the job” and wipe out “the butchers of Hamas,” adding that he was “sick of hearing the media, sick of hearing other people, blaming Israel for defending itself.” Haley, too, stressed her Netanyahu-appeasing credentials: “The first thing I told him when [the Hamas attack of October 7] happened, I said, ‘Finish them, finish them.’” She went on to point the finger at “an unholy alliance” of bad foreign actors behind the Hamas assault, meaning that “the last thing we need to do is to tell Israel what to do. The only thing we should be doing is supporting them in eliminating Hamas.”

Ramaswamy, who had earlier told reporters that his strategy for this debate was to be “unhinged”—not that overall, uh, hingedness is his usual rhetorical calling card—also mimicked Netanyahu chumminess while warming to visions of intra-contintental mayhem in our own hemisphere: “I would tell Bibi Israel has the right and responsibility to defend themselves. I’d also tell him to smoke the terrorists on his southern border, and I’ll smoke the terrorists on our southern border.” He then pivoted with serene unselfconsciousness to an attack on deep-state warmongers in Washington, dismissing Haley and Desantis both as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” Ever alert to the main chance, Scott went right ahead and called for war with Iran; after all, he assured the audience, in one of the evening’s many circular flights from sense, “diplomacy is weak strategy.”

All this opening fire and fury gave much of the rest of the two-hour event a pro forma feel: The answer to virtually every question concerning the use of American force was always more, faster, and harder. When Matthew Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition submitted a videotaped question about the advisability of going after Iran, Haley curtly announced that the country indeed “only responds to threats”; DeSantis made a brief show of deliberating over a US troop commitment before getting back to the main action—“You harm a hair on the head of an American service member,” he barked out to the Iranian mullahs listening in, “and you’re going to have hell to pay.”

Ramaswamy did veer, in that unhinged way of his, into a critique of America’s role in supporting Ukraine against Vladimir Putin’s invasion, but largely by way of substituting Putin’s pet talking points for those of foreign policy sachems in Washington. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is “a Nazi…a comedian in cargo pants,” he proclaimed. (This performance also rather fearsomely complicated Ramasawmy’s earlier denunciation of “the scourge of antisemitism” on American college campuses, Zelensky himself being Jewish.)

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Confrontation with China was also on the menu, since the threat of Sino-engineered dominance is “to this generation what the Soviet Union was to the World War II generation,” as DeSantis said, in a whole new register of Cold War alarmism. The reveries of fiery Yank retribution were a bit more muted in this context, though; a question from Hewitt about US naval readiness in response to China’s own fleet expansion drew no clear response from any candidate. (Even Christie, who dourly noted this pattern, deflected the query with a disquisition on American advantage in nuclear submarine warfare, which didn’t strike the calming and reassuring note he seemed to think it would.)

The candidates swiped at one another for various degrees of past appeasement of China’s economic might in their day jobs; in these exchanges, they took care to note that this or that Floridian real estate deal or South Carolinian land grant involving outlays of Chinese resources occurred within a dozen or so miles of a US military base. The clear implication was that the new Chinese proprietors went swiftly to work dismantling American military strength, but, in addition to summoning up memories of last winter’s ludicrous Chinese surveillance balloon panic, this phoned-in exercise in scaremongering overlooked an inconvenient larger truth: Thanks to the legacies of Cold War congressional appropriators, a great deal of the country’s population centers are within a half hour’s drive of a military installation or supplier. It was with palpable relief that the crew of aspiring commanders in chief stumbled, at Hewitt’s prompting, into a China-baiting strategy that commanded ready assent: banning TikTok.

Ah, yes: banning. The interdiction business is the other GOP-managed boom industry. The blood-and-soil tenor of the evening’s discourse segued nicely into extended fantasias of southern border conquest in response to the fentanyl epidemic. Along with his usual pledge to shoot fentanyl cartel members “stone cold dead,” DeSantis rushed to announce that he’d resume construction of Trump’s border wall—and get Mexico to pay for it via a recondite system of taxation of income sent to Mexico from immigrants whom he otherwise wants to theatrically (and illegally) deport. Ramaswamy, meanwhile, touted a wall for the country’s northern border, saying that the country had to “skate to where the puck is”—clearly banking on a hockey metaphor to unleash long latent reserves of anti-Canadian bigotry.

Abortion bans were also under discussion, but in decidedly skittish fashion, given how Ohio’s Issue 1 referendum and the Virginia state elections went on Tuesday. Haley once more sought to stake out a viable center position on the question, without noting that the entire right-wing project for the past 40 years has been organized around extinguishing the center—and particularly on the question of bodily autonomy. She closed things off with an appeal to refrain from “judgment” on the right when it comes to rival positions on the issue—a feint toward tolerance that was undercut in no small part by Haley’s own endorsement of abortion bans as soon as six weeks in August’s first debate. It was a small mercy, at least, that no candidate actually proposed bombing women who might be contemplating an abortion, but it feels like only a matter of time.

For all the lamentable shows of jingoist myopia and rank opportunism from the podium, however, we should also save some scorn for the gruesome performance of the moderators—an epic misnomer in this context. In sponsoring Wednesday’s debate, NBC partnered at the Republican National Committee’s behest with the election-denying radio network Salem Media—which produced Dinesh D’Souza’s discredited coup-promoting documentary 2000 Mules and affords Hewitt an eponymous grievance platform. The panelists sat on their hands as DeSantis nonsensically pledged to scuttle the never-enacted Biden Green New Deal, and as nearly all the field bandied the grotesque falsehood that Democrats support abortion of live-birth babies. Welker also pressed an austerian question on the field about the urgent need to raise the retirement age, on the bogus grounds that Social Security is poised to be bankrupted. (Curiously, this reactionary line of inquiry did wind up yielding what was perhaps the most genuinely unhinged reply of this evening, when Scott declared that “the Laffer curve still works.”) Still, NBC higher-ups no doubt view such first-order journalistic failures as more a feature than a bug; after all, another enduring lesson of the Cold War is that war is good for business.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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